Digitalisation

Technology ecosystems to rethink universities in the digital age

Mercè Gisbert
Abstract

The last two decades have been characterised by the widespread integration of technology into education, and universities and higher education have been no exception. During this time, the use and application of technology in teaching and management (more than in research) have been approached more from an instrumental perspective. Tools and applications have taken centre stage. Although most universities around the world have digitalisation plans, virtual campuses and numerous technological tools and resources, evidence of the reality and the pandemic have highlighted the fact that we are still a long way from achieving the digital transformation needed to tackle the challenges we face. It is necessary to go a step further by considering higher education institutions as a digital ecosystem from an organisational and strategic point of view. The perspective needed to ensure that this ecosystem is balanced involves adopting a shared vision of all areas (management, teaching and research) and all groups (teaching staff, students and administration and services staff), with a clear commitment to integration, equity and sustainability, both institutionally and socially.

Introduction

The nature and pace of the transformations affecting today’s society require that we speed up processes and prepare ourselves for the prospect of constant change. Universities in general and higher education institutions (HEIs) in particular are no exception. Over the past two decades, we have associated the pace and necessity of change with the digital society and a level of technological development and digitalisation that has come to touch on every area of our lives. Digitalisation, however, is not the only aspect that we must take into account in HEIs. We also need to look at how digitalisation may or may not contribute to lessening the impact of other crises that now mark the reality in which we live: the climate crisis (if we cannot find a remedy, we may well be “killing off” our future), migrations (both voluntary and forced) that call for intercultural, multicultural and transcultural views of the educational process; and no less importantly a labour market in constant flux that has become an unavoidable part of the world today. Nor must we forget that HEIs train future professionals for a professional world that is being redefined every year, while we in the universities take as long as two to three years just to carry out the design, approval and verification of a new official educational proposal.

In addition to the foregoing list of crises, we must also include everything that the crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has brought to light. On one hand, technology has the power by which to design alternative learning scenarios to meet the training needs of a far-reaching educational community through distance learning. Clearly, the evidence indicates that physical space can be overcome. Also, as we saw when we overhauled university degrees to adapt to the EHEA (the European Higher Education Area), the pace is set by the student (not by the content or instructor). Front and centre among the needs of HEIs is the need to review the entire digitalisation strategy. While HEIs may have become digitalised, they have made almost nothing automatic yet. Indeed, the whole university community (researchers, teaching staff, students, and administrative and service staff) has not yet sufficiently developed its digital competence. As a result, some digital tools and strategies have suffered from the fact that this particular community is literate but not competent. Lastly, the lack of a digital strategy (for teaching, research and management) has stood in the way of addressing the needs of the organisation “in real time”.

Given the initial position set out above, the digital transformation of HEIs is a matter of training (aimed not just at digitalisation, but also at innovation and change) and institutional strategy, but it is also a matter of personnel strategy and being capable of adopting digital technology as a context, framework, scenario, strategy and tool. In no way is any of this intended to downplay the talent of the institution’s human dimension. Rather, the challenge that it poses is to humanise technology and turn it into the greatest ally of people. Technology on its own (much less artificial intelligence) will not bring major change unless it comes with a good institutional strategic plan, a sound plan to give people the skills required to use it well, and a sustainability plan to renew all equipment as often as needed to guarantee its smooth operation and give access to everyone on an equal footing. In short, we in the HEIs must seek to ensure access to technology on the same terms for all (equality) and in accordance with the needs of each (equity).

A changing digital context

The digitalisation of daily life and the adaptation of our environment to the digital format have heralded a clear societal transformation from which HEIs are not exempt. Accordingly, in terms of access to technology, we must not only consider the economic capacity of the public, which obviously matters, but also the level of competence needed to make good use of technology. With respect to the responsibility of education policies and HEIs to the goals of equality, cohesion and equity, it is necessary to promote measures that counteract the effects of the risks involved. During the pandemic, the threats of technology have surely become more apparent. At the same time, we must consider all of the opportunities that such an extreme situation has produced.

In terms of responsible public policies, international bodies first turned their focus to the importance of equality, cohesion and equity over two decades ago, highlighting the need to take steps to prevent the effects of what was then called the digital divide (OECD, 2001). In the first few years of the twenty-first century, digital inclusion was viewed as an essential step toward social inclusion in a technological world where people interact. In 2021, the European Commission (EC) presented a vision of digital goals for Europe in 2030. Then, in 2022, the EC issued a declaration on digital rights and principles for a human-centred digital transformation, including freedom of choice, security and protection, solidarity and inclusion, participation and sustainability (European Commission [EC], 2022). Over the past decade, some countries like Uruguay have become a clear touchstone by moving forward with a digitalisation plan like Uruguay’s Ceibal Plan to furnish citizens with devices and training and set up observatories to monitor the results (Morales, 2019).

Bearing in mind the characteristics of the digital society, however, it is not enough to think only in terms of inclusion and exclusion. We must consider every principle that is required to ensure educational equity and that can be brought to bear in HEIs. The International Commission on the Futures of Education, which was set up by UNESCO in 2019 to pursue Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, put forward nine key ideas in 2020 that it regarded as fundamental for the future of education (International Commission on the Futures of Education, 2020). The nine ideas focus on strengthening education as a common good, promoting access to technology and even advancing international solidarity.

HEIs are also social institutions. As a fundamental part of society, they must aim to serve the public good and ensure that excellence and public service are compatible. This is a service that is oriented to the interests and needs of the context, but also useful for the promotion of international collaboration, which is what will be needed if we are to tackle major global challenges and push ahead in knowledge creation, science and human progess. For this to be possible, though, we must furnish students with access to techniques and strategies not only for their employability, but also to turn them into critical thinkers who are wise and able to grasp the world in which they find themselves. A digitalised world will require them to develop specific competences to face the challenges of technology.

In terms of their guiding aims, HEIs must seek to lessen the extent of inequity in the world. By way of example, two figures suggest how groups and geographic areas do not all enjoy the same opportunities: only 1% of refugees have access to higher education, whereas 36% of all other young people in the world do. If we could ensure that migrants have access to university on an equal footing, it would increase their social integration, freedom of action and quality of life (UNESCO, 2018).

Similarly, one of the latest publications produced in the context of Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL, 2021),[1] which sets out data collected in the wake of the initial waves of Covid-19, indicates that the gaps between different population groups as a result of poverty are trending upward in rural areas (among children and adolescents), in indigenous and Afro-descendant communities, and in groups with lower educational and economic levels.

Enrolment in higher education has grown in recent decades, rising from 17.1% in 1998 to 27% in 2008 to 38% in 2018, but the increase has been very uneven across the world’s regions. Sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest level of access to higher education (5%) and Latin America’s enrolment figure is less than half the equivalent for high-income countries (Altbach, 2016).

The Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare a host of serious issues, including shortfalls in different educational systems including HEIs. The pandemic has also intensified inequality stemming from significant problems of connection and access to the digital world. It has widened the educational gaps for the most disadvantaged groups and accentuated the lack of digital competence among a portion of instructors who need to be able to cope with the situation. The undervaluing of formal and non-formal educational spaces (both online and in person) has proven to be yet another major obstacle (Bas Vilizzio et al., 2021). Once normality returns, therefore, it is obvious that the right solution will not, under any circumstances, be somehow to return to the pre-pandemic situation, because it did not always prove efficient from the standpoint of managing institutional resources or providing access to training processes. The situation in which students found themselves during the healthcare crisis was not equitable in terms of connectivity or access to technology.

Computer access, connectivity and housing conditions are only some of the problems that have led to a rise in the number of students abandoning their studies. The post-pandemic scene, which is marked by the severe economic consequences of Covid-19, has witnessed increased unemployment and higher poverty among families. The gravity of the situation has been even more pronounced in less-developed countries and regions and among more vulnerable sectors of the population, such as students who hail from rural communities (Farnell et al., 2021).

In terms of equity, digital inclusion depends increasingly less on access to technology and increasingly more on the knowledge, attitudes and skills required to manage technology. In this respect, needs are being generated in the area of infrastructure (energy storage, updating devices, connectivity, etc.) and in the training required to make good use of technology (digital literacy, specialised skills, digital competences, etc.) (Gisbert & Lázaro, 2020).

Digital citizens are trained in formal, non-formal and informal contexts, very often learning invisibly everything that will help them to develop as social beings (Cobo & Moravec, 2011). Of the three contexts, the formal one is the one that we can control. It is also the one that will enable us to ensure that future citizens receive the training they require to meet the needs of today’s digital society. HEIs, therefore, must also take on the role of developing the digital citizenship competence. The Council of Europe (Frau-Meigs, O’Neill, Soriani & Tomé, 2017) has summarised the 10 domains of this competence as shown below in Figure 1.

Figure 1. The 10 domains of digital citizenship

 

Image 1

Source: Frau-Meigs, O’Neill, Soriani & Tomé, 2017

The failure to dedicate the time and resources needed to develop the 10 domains only serves to push the number of digital outcasts ever higher as technological development speeds up. From an educational perspective that includes higher education, this is a reality that we will be able to reverse and improve only if we are able to create genuine technological ecosystems for learning that are aimed at the development of the digital citizenship competence across the board and on equal terms for all (Gisbert & Lázaro, 2020).

In such an ecosystem, HEIs can play an important role by making available all necessary technological resources and infrastructure (libraries, learning and research resource centres, labs, digital classrooms, etc.) not only to their own academic communities, but also to the wider society. Particularly with respect to students, HEIs can play a key role by providing compensatory tools to students who need them. That is, when HEIs furnish all of the sometimes state-of-the-art technological resources mentioned above, the provision of compensatory tools can help to bridge shortfalls in the personal environments of students and therefore ensure that they receive the best possible training to meet the challenges of society and the labour market. Also, another good way to encourage the development of digital citizenship is for HEIs to promote open labs that take a social perspective and are free for any members of the public who wish to attend. Labs of this sort provide a space and pursue a strategy by which different participants seek together to renew the methods of innovation and creation through the use of processes that are collaborative and open, not only analogue but also digital (Lépine & Martin-Juchat, 2020).


[1] Cepal study based on data collected in the following countries: Argentina, Bolivia (Plurinational State of), Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of).

HEIs addressing inequalities that stem from the knowledge gap and the lack of access to the internet and technological devices

Equity should be one of the core elements of all education policies to ensure a level playing field for each and every individual who seeks a quality education. While it is true that various international forums, government statements, and the education legislation of each country incorporates the principle of equity and inclusion, the reality is that there are still many groups who cannot gain access to education in general or to higher education in particular on an equal footing. Ethnicity, culture, gender and language are still variables that work against equality of educational opportunities. The problem proves even more serious in the case of ethnic minorities, indigenous peoples, migrants and people who have some type of special educational need.

We take the digital gap to be the distance between those who merely have access to technology and those who have the capacity or opportunity to use this technology. Following the conception of Tello (2007), I regard the digital gap as the divide between those who are connected to the digital world and those who cannot enjoy the benefits of such a connection. Lázaro, Estebanell & Tedesco (2015) define four factors that can promote digital inclusion and, therefore, social cohesion: 1) the strategic management of public policies; 2) a broad guarantee of access to technology; 3) the continuous training of educators on technology issues, and 4) evidence-based evaluation and monitoring of implemented policies.

We need to reflect on today’s society and the new models of knowledge creation that it entails, consider the level of digital inclusion (rather than looking at the digital gap) that is needed to achieve the transformative education HEIs must ensure, and look thoughtfully at how citizens and professionals must be developed in a digital context. It is well past time to focus our discourses and strategies more on inclusion than on gaps. HEIs also need to be aware that they often fail to take account of the socio-economic profiles of their students, especially in the case of countries in the so-called First World. Our HEIs must make the transition from an academic perspective to a social one.

Moreover, we need to engage with stakeholder groups, such as HEIs, NGOs, governments, international organisations, migrant associations and human rights organisations, in order to work together on this transdisciplinary subject, and we need to put our heads together to improve on our shortcomings. International cooperation will become important not only, for instance, to share computer tools, platforms and experiences in digital learning, but also to collaborate in the training of educators. The creation of learning scenarios in digital contexts offers the potential added value of internationalisation and the possibility of access to training anywhere, anytime – that is, at any point in our lives when education or training happens to be most suitable for us.

Digital inclusion is connected to a variety of processes: a community’s availability of telecoms infrastructure and networks; accessibility to services offered by technology; and the competences and knowledge needed to make good use of technology. At the same time, the literature on technologies tends to present them as a major factor in equalising opportunities and connects them to public policies that need to be enacted to transform reality. In this respect, the discourse needs to shift its focus toward forms of knowledge access, exchange and co-creation by individuals and communities (Gisbert & Lázaro, 2020; Lago Martínez et al., 2016; Morales, 2019).

The various applications that have been implemented and made available to society at low cost, or indeed at no cost, have turned millions of users into captive “customers” of strategies, interests and even world-views. So much so that the large corporations that are involved should be required – on the grounds of corporate social responsibility – to ensure that a share of their profits is ploughed directly back into society so that it becomes a better place each day for citizens to live (Picard & Pickard, 2017). If this were the case, the non-formal context in question would become an important ally of HEIs, facilitating access to information much more generally. HEIs, therefore, should seek to involve this non-formal context as an integral part of their training proposals, while also ensuring fundamental ethical principles and an individual and collective commitment to the responsible use of technological resources (Carrera et al. 2016).

Certainly, one of the most interesting examples of how to put technology, training and knowledge at the fingertips of less advantaged sectors of the population with the help of low-cost devices and a worldwide reach is the initiative of Salman Khan and his Khan Academy. Originally, Khan created Khan Academy only to offer private classes from Boston to students in New Orleans. Soon, however, the experience spurred him to design and develop a worldwide educational system with low-cost devices, a good didactic component and pleasing voices. It is no longer necessary to have expensive hardware, highly prepared staff, specific venues, installed servers or a distribution network, if you can use the internet as your distribution network, YouTube to store videos freely, a conventional computer with a camera, and a graphics tablet that is able to run free or low-cost recording software, all by following a “do it yourself” philosophy (Sheikh et al., 2021).

Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng at Stanford University set out to build a highly successful course with the same technologies and came up with Coursera (Mass et al., 2014). Anant Agrawal also pursued a similar approach, first with MITx and then with edX in conjunction with MIT and Harvard University (Pujar & Bansode, 2014). The technology was mature. From that point onwards, it was only necessary to apply it intensively. In the first half of the last decade, MOOCs became fashionable even if they did not persist as a strategy. The reality of the pandemic, however, has shown us that having MOOCs implemented would have helped to make the lockdowns more bearable. We would have had material and resources accessible on any device, anywhere and anytime. Both the experience of the Khan Academy and the experience of MOOCs as a mode of course delivery can enable large-scale access to training and therefore contribute to inclusion and equity in technological contexts with only minimal necessary infrastructure.

Institutionalising the digitalisation of HEIs

In recent years, the talk at HEIs has turned to blended and flexible learning as well as hybrid learning models. This particular narrative gained oxygen during the pandemic, but the reality is that online resources at in-person HEIs have served only to supplement the prevailing mode of instruction, which is still synchronous and on site. Even so, the pandemic has demonstrated the need to design training activities for delivery through technologies designed for digital environments and drawing on supplementary human support (in person or online).

As a result, it is now clear that HEIs are not so much about what they teach as they are about how to teach in a manner interconnected to the world, giving meaning and skills to students so as to enable them to engage in their own transformation while also providing them with the tools needed to develop as citizens (Boix, 2016). This is one of the major contributions that we in HEIs can make to ensure inclusion and equal opportunity, and we can make it happen by putting a set of overarching competences into our training programmes. Prior to the pandemic, the global education movement was already gaining ground (Camilleri, 2016). Indeed, one of its aims is for HEIs to be cognizant of the need to foster the principles of respect, inclusion and especially equity.

Viewed overall, these approaches, which have been designed in technological environments, call upon our imaginations to transform the context of HEIs gradually over time according to a plan. However, we will not be able to do so with a top-down strategy, because the approaches also entail a process of cultural change that will take place at most in the medium term. That said, real change will be possible only if there is good institutional leadership, professional growth for educators, optimal infrastructure and a well-planned evaluation process that can provide evidence of students’ development in terms of learning results, from the cognitive and emotional perspectives (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Articulating the technological scenarios for learning from a pedagogical perspective

Image 2

Source: Gisbert & Lázaro, 2020

The perspective depicted in Figure 2 can take different forms in practice. All involve teaching and learning strategies that are flexible, inclusive and enable users to develop in terms of their perspectives and needs. Maker spaces (Hynes & Hynes, 2018), open labs (mentioned earlier) and living labs (van den Heuvel et al., 2021) are all examples of spaces conceived with a functionality that is oriented toward the co-creation of knowledge and the application of new learning methods. They are also spaces where analogue and digital tools co-exist. In general, the strategy adopted to promote learning in such spaces becomes as important as, or even more important than, whether the available technological devices are state-of-the-art. Even so, there is still a tendency to focus the discussion more on the technology than on the teaching strategy.

As an example, we have the Monterrey Institute of Technology with its open lab project, specifically the Mostla project,[1] which is a lab to reinvent education using state-of-the-art technology tools. Nonetheless, the truly significant aspect of the experience is the contribution of the Mostla project to the professional development of current and future educators.

Technology-based open and living lab concepts enable us to ensure access to all learners on an equal footing as long as the conditions for connectivity and access are optimal. We must not forget, however, that we can also imagine spaces of this kind that are not strictly digital. Indeed, we will encounter the blended or hybrid approach in many of the cases.

The pandemic has once again revived the debate over the quality of higher education and its genuine contributions and limitations. On top of an educational model designed for 100% in-person learning in which technology has typically played no more than a token role, we have suddenly been compelled by reality to implement an entirely remote learning approach. The learning process in general and the evaluation process in particular have had to be redesigned from scratch. Moreover, the resulting evaluation process has drawn sharp criticism. It has become clear yet again that not only do HEIs need to promote access to knowledge, but they must also equip students with critical thinking skills and make them capable of interacting with other students in the co-creation of knowledge (Farnell et al., 2021).

Ultimately, HEIs must focus on students, their needs and their links to every part of the institution. That is, personalised pathways must be developed for each student. Also, we need to imbue our institutional strategies with the views, perceptions and experiences of students. They need to be considered in the design of traditional process maps and attention must be given to the communication channels and relational mechanisms that they use. Only in this way will we be able to produce a 360-degree view of student needs as well as the needs of every other agent who takes part in the educational process, including administrators (management), industry (transfer), society (third mission) and social collaborators (partners and stakeholders) (CRUE, 2017).


[1] For more on the Mostla project, a lab to reinvent education, see: https://observatorio.tec.mx/edu-news/mostla-laboratorio-para-revolucionar-la-educacion

HEIs must lead the change toward sustainability

We must take on new challenges in terms of learning standards, pedagogies and forms of evaluation and certification, which will require contextualisation, analysis and improvement (if necessary). While the trend already existed, the migratory crisis has grown significantly more intense since the outbreak of the pandemic (UNESCO, 2018). Indeed, it is intertwined with climate change issues and will only be more so in the decades to come. The pandemic will eventually disappear, but climate change will continue to pose an imminent threat for all societies. However, we must not view sustainability solely from the perspective of climate change. It is also necessary to see sustainability in terms of ensuring access to higher education for immigrants and refugees and making it a duty of HEIs to ensure educational equity.

To guarantee sustainability, we need to address the issue by means of a strategy for transformation. In this vein, HEIs need to take the following steps (based in part on CRUE, 2017):

  • Define a vision that looks at how digitalisation brings value to the institution.
  • Undertake processes of culture change and organisational change: this is the core challenge.
  • Redefine processes: this is the first step toward change. Finish the “industrialisation of processes” and move on to automation and then innovation and change.
  • Define the point of contact for students, which is moving increasingly closer to everything digital.
  • Be reachable anywhere, anytime and from any device. The university does not yet have an answer to this issue.
  • Include the views of students in process maps.
  • Design technology services (advanced data analysis) to monitor reality in real time.
  • Rethink the university model. Shift from an analogue to a digital university. Generic online attention and personalised on-site attention. New educational techniques and strategies (e.g. MOOCs not as an end, but as a means).

Bearing in mind that we live in an increasingly liquid context, any strategy that we define will need to be flexible enough to ensure that HEIs can rise to the challenges of meeting the needs of learners and responding to the local and global context through the transfer of research results and newly created knowledge.

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